Two postings back, I discussed the prevalence of slavery in the New Testament and its survival in Christianity (see https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2018/04/09/jesus-slaves/). Today we will look at an interesting related issue. Be cautioned — this requires careful reading, because it can be rather confusing — a confusion that is reflected in iconography.
There is an icon type depicting the healing story found in Matthew 8:5-13:
In it, a Roman centurion (we see him with Jesus in the above image) comes to request healing for his παῖς/pais:
“[Jesus] Having entered into Capernaum, there came to him a centurion [ἑκατόνταρχος/hekatontarkhos], beseeching him and saying, ‘Lord, my pais [παῖς] is lying in the house paralyzed, terribly tormented.’ And he [Jesus] says to him, ‘I will come and heal him.’
But the centurion, answering him, said, ‘Lord [Kyrie], I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only speak the word and my pais will be healed. For even I — a man — am under authority. I have under me soldiers, and I say to this one, Go! and he goes, and to that one, Come! and he comes, and to my slave [doulos] Do this! and he does it.’ Jesus hearing him was amazed, and said to those following, ‘Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith in Israel.'”
Now the question is, what did the Centurion in the story mean by pais? The usual English translation will say (euphemistically) that the pais here is his servant, however that is not at all clear from the context. Indeed, when the Centurion is telling Jesus how he just gives a command and is obeyed by his soldiers, he adds that all he has to do is say to his slave (doulos) “Do this!” and the slave does it. Now again, in most English translations, both pais and doulos are commonly and euphemistically translated as “servant.”
A doulos, however, is not a servant as we understand the term. A doulos is quite literally a slave, and the legal property of his owner. Pais, however, can mean a child, a boy; it can also be a term used for a male slave (just as slave owners in the American South used the term “boy” when referring to a male slave, with the appellation surviving even in post-slavery times as an implied disrespectful deprecation in the southern United States when used for men of African descent). A pais may even signify the male sex partner of the slave owner (those who favor this interpretation point out that in New Testament times, centurions were not allowed to marry, though of course some had female sex partners).
So, was the pais of the Centurion in “Matthew” his son? Was he asking Jesus to heal his boy? Or was he asking him to heal his slave, and if so, why does he use pais in one place, and doulos in another, as though he is speaking of two different persons? I will leave the “male sex partner” possibility for others to ponder.
In any case, how is it that most English translations — given this uncertainty — render pais here as “servant” and not “boy”?
The answer is that the translators go to the parallel story in the gospel called “Of Luke.” As you know, “Mark” is considered to be the first gospel written of the New Testament four, and both “Matthew” and “Luke” are expanded, edited versions of Mark, adding additional material (notably birth and resurrection appearance stories at beginning and end, as well as other material in the main body of the text).
Mark, however, has no tale of a centurion coming to Jesus and asking for healing. But there is a version of the story in “Luke” 7:1-10:
“And when he [Jesus] had finished all his words in the hearing of the people, he entered into Capernaum. And a certain slave [doulos] of a centurion was ill, about to die, who was precious to him.
And hearing about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to him, begging him to come cure his slave [doulon]. And coming to Jesus, they begged him earnestly, saying, ‘Worthy is he to whom he will grant this, for he loves our nation, and built a synagogue for us.’ And Jesus went with them.
And when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. Therefore I did not consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my pais shall be healed. For I a man am appointed under authority, having soldiers under me, and I say to this one, Go! and he goes, and to another, Come! and he comes, and to my slave [doulo] Do this! and he does it.’
And having heard these things, Jesus was amazed by him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, ‘I tell you, I did not even find such faith in Israel.'”
Now obviously this is just a variation on the same story, though in Luke’s version, the Centurion does not himself come to Jesus, but instead sends Jewish elders to ask Jesus to come. But in the Lukan version (unlike “Matthew”) it is quite clear that the Centurion’s doulos and his pais are one and the same person — his slave. And that is why translators, reading Luke, make the Centurion’s pais in Matthew his “servant” and not his boy (though as we have seen, doulos really means “slave.”
We have, however, also seen that there are differences in the two stories, and so we cannot know for certain that the pais in Matthew was the Centurion’s slave and not his own son.
In fact the matter is only further confused if we take a look at another story, found in the gospel “Of John,” 4:46-54:
“So Jesus came again into Cana of Galilee, where he had made the water wine. And there was a certain royal official [βασιλικὸς/basilikos], whose son [υἱὸς/huios] was ill in Capernaum.
He, hearing that Jesus had come out of Judea into Galilee, asked that he would come down and heal his son, for he was about to die. Jesus therefore said to him, ‘Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe.’
The royal official [basiliskos] says to him, ‘Lord [Kyrie], come down before my child [παιδίον/paidion] dies.’
Jesus says to him, ‘Go, your son [υἱός/huios] lives.’
The story continues for a few more lines, but that is the essence of it.
Now it seems this tale in “John” is just another variant of the same tale told in Matthew and Luke. The Centurion becomes a “royal official,” and the pais of Matthew becomes quite clearly the “son” of the official in John. In fact when the official asks Jesus to come before his son dies, he uses the word παιδίον/paidion, which is just a diminutive form of παῖς/pais.
So that leaves us still not knowing what “Matthew” intended the pais of the Centurion to be, though it may well have been his son, as in John, and not his slave. Luke makes it quite clear that in his story, the pais is a slave. But in John, the official’s paidion is quite clearly his huios, his son.
Now, those brave and patient souls among you who have read all of that, will now know the confusion that lies behind the presence of two quite different images in Eastern Orthodox iconography. We have already seen the first, which shows the Centurion beseeching Jesus to heal his pais, which is generally interpreted to be his slave by the admixture of Luke’s version of the story with that of Matthew.
John’s story, however, results in quite a different icon type, in which the Centurion (not just “royal official”) has Jesus heal his son.
Here is an example from the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos:
We see Jesus and his disciples at left, and the Centurion at right, beside the bed on which his son lies.
The Greek inscription reads:
Ὁ Χριστός ιώµενος τον ὑιον του εκατοντάρχου
Ho Khristos iomenos ton huion tou [h]ekatontarkhou
“Christ Healing the Son of the Centurion.”
Now in Eastern Orthodoxy, Matthew’s tale of the healing of the Centurion’s “servant” is read on the fourth Sunday after Pentecost. John’s tale of the Royal Official’s (“Nobleman’s”) son is read on Monday of the 3rd week In Pascha. They are treated as two quite separate “miracles.” But in practice — including in iconography — they are often confused, as we see from the Dionysiou fresco, in which we find the Centurion (not “royal official/nobleman”) of Matthew and Luke, but the Centurion’s son (from the Gospel of John) is the one being healed, not his slave.
If your head is spinning after all that, relax, sit down, have a nice hot cup of herbal tea.